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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

If you see only one rapper this year who happens to be Muslim, albino and legally blind, NPR's Neda Ulaby says it should be Brother Ali. He's on a national tour right now, and he counts some of hip-hop's biggest names among his fans. And a warning: This piece contains language that some listeners may find offensive. Here's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY: Chuck D of Public Enemy kicks off Brother Ali's new album.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHUCK D (Rapper): Brothers and sisters, put your hands together and welcome Brother Ali.

ULABY: The album is called "Us." In a song with the same title, the musician explains his start.

(Soundbite of song, "Us")

Mr. BROTHER ALI (Rapper): (Rapping) I started rhyming just to be somebody, to make people notice me at the party. And not be…

ULABY: The new kid, the misfit.

(Soundbite of song, "Us")

Mr. ALI: (Rapping) …just the new kid that's albino. Make them say, yeah, I know, but have you heard him rhyme, though? Now, I take that same party around the globe and my stories connected with a lot of folks.

ULABY: Folks who almost by definition don't have much in common with a blind, Muslim, albino, Caucasian rapper.

(Soundbite of song, "Us")

Mr. ALI: (Rapping) …from the start. I'm blind in the eye so I see you with my heart. To me, all of y'all look exactly the same, fear, faith, compassion and pain. And try as we may to mask it remains such as your religion or your past and your race. The same color blood just pass through our veins and tears taste the same when they're splashing your face. The worlds getting too small to stand in one place.

ULABY: Back in the 1980s, Ali was a kid named Jason Newman, cutting school and scrapping on the streets of North Minneapolis. He loved hip-hop's energy and joy, and its criticism of harsh social systems.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Rappers talked about people he'd never heard about in school or church, like Malcolm X or Louis Farrakhan.

Mr. ALI: You know, a kid like me from the Midwest, was so enthralled by the poetry and artistry of people like Rakim, that it made me want to know, what is he talking about?

(Soundbite of song, "Move the Crowd")

Mr. RAKIM (Rapper): (Rapping) …the closer I get, the better it sound. My mind starts to activate.

ULABY: Rakim, one of the all-time greatest MCs, produced classics like "Move the Crowd."

(Soundbite of song, "Move the Crowd")

Mr. RAKIM: (Rapping) …to a perfection. All praise is due to Allah, and that's a blessing.

Mr. ALI: He said: All praise due to Allah, and that's a blessing. I wanted to know what that was. And so when Chuck D and KRS-One were saying things like Farrakhan's a prophet, I think you ought to listen to him, that initially is what made me track down the Quran.

ULABY: Brother Ali converted at the age of 15. He followed Imam W. Deen Mohammed, who moved the Nation of Islam away from black nationalism and towards a more conventional, global Muslim identity. Mohammed was forward-thinking, a champion of interfaith relations.

Mr. ALI: When I was a kid, there was a group of people that he sent to Malaysia to study the way that a more - kind of liberal Islamic society could have this peaceful coexistence between different religions. And I was one of the people that he picked to go over there and study.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Hip-hop and Islam tend to get caught up in the same misconceptions, says Brother Ali, that they're somehow inherently violent, disrespectful of women, homophobic. Ali says these attitudes are much bigger than either hip-hop or Islam.

Mr. ALI: They come from weaknesses and insecurity within human beings.

ULABY: Weaknesses and insecurities Ali has faced himself.

Mr. ALI: In my old work, I was so ignorant to the hell that gay people are put through because they're deemed to be different. I would say - well, I said the word faggot on my first album. And I'm so thoroughly embarrassed by that now that I have gay friends and gay people that I look up to.

(Soundbite of song, "Tight Rope")

Mr. ALI: (Rapping) He has girlfriends but doesn't want a girlfriend. He retreats inside himself where he lives life itself in secret. Daddy says people go to hell for being what he is and he certainly believes him because there ain't no brain that complains enough to trump being hated for the way you love. And cry yourself to sleep and hate waking up. It's a cold world, y'all. Shame on us.

ULABY: You never quite know what's coming on any given Brother Ali track. The first single from his new album is about domestic ecstasy, his intense satisfaction being home with his wife and kids.

(Soundbite of song, "Fresh Air")

Mr. ALI: (Rapping) Just got married last year, treated so good that it ain't even fair. Already got a boy, now the baby girl's here, bought us a house like the Berenstain Bears. Not two years ago, I was homeless, I mean, crashing on the couch of my homies. Now, I'm crashing on the couch with Conan, signed a mortgage…

Mr. ALI: In every album, I try to talk about a lot of important things to me that are good, and I try to come from a really sincere, genuine place within myself. But I'd be lying if I didn't include at least one song where I'm just an (BEEP).

ULABY: In the new album, that might be the song that's a fantasy about getting even with an obnoxious neighbor by stealing and selling his drugs, or the boasts about his former life as a hoodlum.

Mr. JAY SMOOTH (Radio Host, Underground Railroad): Hip-hop, you know, both musically and lyrically, has always been about being hard and aggressive.

ULABY: Jay Smooth hosts New York City's longest-running hip-hop radio show. He's a longtime fan of Brother Ali's. The two are also friends.

Mr. SMOOTH: Brother Ali is one of the artists who's showing that there can be just as much drama in the day-to-day life of being in a family. Like, love can be just as exciting as fear.

ULABY: Smooth says telling the truth brings grit and attitude to Ali's music. When he rhymes about dealing drugs before his conversion, it's about the excruciating boredom of standing on a corner for hours, not the supposed glamour of thug life. In the same way, it's mundane details like crashing on the couch with his kids that fill Brother Ali with an uncompromising, un-corny integrity.

(Soundbite of song, "Truth Is")

Mr. ALI: (Rapping) Truth is here, the truth is here. Truth is here, the truth is here. I said the truth is here, the truth is here. I want more. Give me more. We want more.

ULABY: Ali's language is not always so squeaky-clean. He curses a lot, and that's drawn disapproval from more orthodox Muslims. But the musician says he can express his faith even with what he calls his grown-up words.

Mr. ALI: Everything in Islam is act of worship. Everything good and pure and genuine that you do is an act of worship. I believe that me being the best artist that I can be translates to me being the most honest artist that I can be. Were I not to show the crass side of myself, I'd be holding something back from my artistry.

(Soundbite of song, "Truth Is")

Mr. ALI: (Rapping) Got to let it out at least enough to let the monster flee. I want more than what you're offering me, songs that make me feel like I'm already free. I'm a rebel in my own right. Y'all don't want to write or think or speak or rhyme standing next to me.

ULABY: Brother Ali says his music reflects his progress on a spiritual journey, and maybe he's still growing into his faith. Right now, Ali is on a strenuous physical journey as well. His current tour across the United States takes him to almost 50 cities in the next month and a half.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Truth Is")

Mr. ALI: (Rapping) Give me more. I want more.

BLOCK: You can listen to two songs from Brother Ali's new album, "Us," and find a lot more music of all kinds, at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Truth Is")

Mr. ALI: Truth is here, the truth is. Not nearly a single solitary soul. Still put the kind of passion to the mic that I hold. One day, it'll have to be pried…

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